Clerk Of Commons: Not Having Fully Independent Harassment System Would Have ‘Seriously' Undermined Complaints

Exclusive: John Benger says he was "painfully aware" failure to implement full Cox recommendations would have risked staff 'trust'.

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Moves to stamp out bullying and harassment in parliament would have been “seriously” undermined if MPs had not voted this week to make the process fully independent, the Clerk of the Commons has declared.

Writing exclusively for HuffPost UK, John Benger hailed the “momentous decision” to create an expert panel to deal with complaints and for the Commons to approve any sanctions without any debate.

His words follow a major rebellion by Tory backbenchers on Tuesday, who rejected a proposal by Commons leader Jacob Rees-Mogg that would have allowed MPs to discuss the most serious cases where suspension or expulsion was recommended.

Rees-Mogg’s plan sparked a furious backlash among current and former parliamentary staff and women’s groups, who said it would deter complaints from being made and inflict further pain on those who had suffered abuse.

Dame Laura Cox, who had led a probe into bullying and harassment, had warned she had “serious concerns” that the Rees-Mogg plan would fail to meet her key recommendation that the new system would be one in which “MPs play no part”.

Benger, the most senior official in the Commons, said that he was “painfully aware” that staff needed reassurance about the full independence of the new system, which will create an Independent Expert Panel (IEP) to determine complaints.

“In cases where the IEP recommends the most extreme sanctions, such as suspension or expulsion of an MP, the House must approve the recommendation via a motion in the Chamber. Any such motion will be taken without debate,” he writes.

“This significant decision means that we have now implemented all three of the recommendations from Dame Laura Cox’s report.

“I have been painfully aware that without this measure, the level of trust and reassurance provided by the ICGS [the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme] would be seriously reduced. This week’s decision means our system of reporting unacceptable behaviour is robust and truly independent.”

Benger did not refer to the original Rees-Mogg motion, but his words will be seen by campaigners as vindication for their case that the government’s unamended plans would have failed to implement the Cox review in full.

On the eve of the vote, former Commons clerk Jenny McCullough had said victims of abuse wouldn’t go “anywhere near” a system that allowed colleagues of those found guilty to talk to a live TV audience about whether sanctions should be applied.

In the end, 45 Tory MPs – including former PM Theresa May – defied guidance from their whips and backed an amendment by Standards Committee chairman Chris Bryant to remove any possibility of debates on sanctions.

Benger added that Dame Laura’s report had found that “high levels of deference and elitism” had contributed to a culture in which bullying, and harassment were not addressed.

“Outdated power structures had continued unchecked, and there was little recourse for victims when bullies took advantage of that situation.

“It laid bare facts which were impossible to ignore, including a failure of leadership, highlighting the testimonies of hundreds of staff who had experienced awful and traumatic treatment in the workplace.”

He said that that the Commons had “much more to do” to show it was not just catching up with other workplaces but was a model of how to deal with bullying, harassment and sexual harassment.

Tuesday’s vote was described as a “game-changer” by Amy Leversidge, assistant general secretary of the FDA civil service union, who praised those staff who had lost careers for speaking out against previous abuse.

Following the vote, Rees-Mogg issued a video in which he stressed he was ”horrified” by some of the stories of bullying and harassment. “The vote today means the culture change that the House of Commons needs is being put in place with the establishment of an entirely independent body to root out bad behaviour,” he said.

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